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MBTA: Maintaining Transportation Systems Comes at a Cost

Wed June 29, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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BOSTON (AP) Higher gas taxes, increased MBTA fares and more expensive highway tolls are some of the measures being discussed by an influential transportation commission as ways of maintaining and improving the state’s transportation infrastructure.

The 13 members of the state Transportation Finance Commission have not come to a final agreement, but are convinced that new charges are all but inevitable if the state is to pay for its rail, road and airport systems, said Commission Chairman Stephen J. Silveira.

“The essential issue is transportation services are very expensive,” he told The Boston Globe. “They’re expensive to provide initially, and then you have to keep them in running order, and it’s never a done deal.”

The preliminary recommendations include increases in fares on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority during peak hours, higher MBTA parking fees, an increase in the gas tax, and the restoration of tolls on all Massachusetts Turnpike entrances.

“Everything is on the table,” said Paul Regan, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board and a member of the panel. “I don’t have a list of this tax versus that tax. We’re pretty much getting our arms around the problem. But something has to be done.”

The commission was set up by the Legislature with the job of trying to close the gap between the cost of transportation systems and public money available. Members have heard from the public, the MBTA, the Massachusetts Port Authority, the Turnpike Authority, the state Highway Department, and other agencies.

The recommendations are not scheduled to be finalized until December and some may ultimately be rejected. But members, including business leaders, former state officials and academics, are concerned about growing transportation costs.

Gov. Mitt Romney in March unveiled a $31-billion transportation blueprint for the state for the next 20 years, which called for repairs to hundreds of bridges and improvements to miles of congested highways.

Romney said half of the plan would be paid for by the federal government, but the proposal, while ambitious, has created debate on the commission about taxes and tolls, said Michael J. Widmer, a member of the commission and the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

“The governor’s plan is a positive effort, and there are some important elements in the plan, but there’s no additional resources really,” Widmer said. “There is a huge gap between the investments in important transportation projects on the one hand, and the state’s limited resources on the other.”

Tax increases have to be approved by the Legislature, and Romney has pledged to veto any tax increases.

The governor’s plan could be paid for without new taxes or tolls, a spokesman said, instead relying on federal aid and state bonds.

“The plan that was laid out by the governor does not call for the implementation of any new tolls or taxes,” Jon Carlisle said.

The commission also is examining cost-saving measures, including the creation of a single agency to run all the state’s roads; deals for equipment sharing; rollbacks in pro-union construction laws; and even closure of the Worcester airport, according to preliminary recommendations.

“It comes down to making some hard choices,” Regan said. “At the end of the day, we have to figure out how to fund what we can fund, and not hurt the very economy we’re trying to help.”

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